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West End Cinema closing at end of March

(Image from West End Cinema Web site)
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The West End Cinema will close at the end of March, owner Josh Levin announced on Monday.

Since opening the three-auditorium, 218-seat theater in 2010, Levin has made the West End a haven for small, independent movies that otherwise could only be seen on demand or not at all. Films like Kenneth Lonergan’s “Margaret,” Eugene Jarecki’s documentary “The House I Live In” and “Awake: The Life of Yogananda” exemplify the kind of “orphan” films that found purchase at the West End, which also served as a move-over house for bigger movies, such as “The Social Network,” “Silver Linings Playbook” and “Django Unchained.”

That model made it possible for the West End to stay afloat even with the paper-thin margins of the movie exhibition business. But, Levin said, for several months the theater has been “treading water financially, and we have looming significant increases in our occupancy costs that we simply can’t cover from operations.”

Levin noted that the exhibition landscape has radically changed since the West End opened just before Halloween in 2010. The Austin-based Alamo Drafthouse and Cinema opened an outpost in Ashburn, the Angelika opened its Mosaic theater in Fairfax and a pop-up theater at Union Market, and the high-end ArcLight and iPic theaters opened in Montgomery County. With more theaters planned in the area, including a permanent home for the Angelika pop-up and two new Landmark theaters near 14th and U and in NoMa, Levin noted that “we simply won’t be able to compete for the same quality of films that we’ve been showing. So the only rational decision, as much as I hate to have to come to this conclusion, is to close.”

[New movie theaters offer sweet seats, adult beverages and more -- for a price]

A crucial factor in the West End’s business model was being able to get more mainstream films at the height of their awards-season campaigns; recently, however, bigger theater chains in the area have demanded that they get sole access to those titles, effectively shutting the West End out of their main revenue stream. Whereas in the past Levin could play such Oscar contenders as “Argo” and “The Wolf of Wall Street,” this year he had no such high-profile titles. “Without those better-known, more prestigious films during the holidays and awards season, the economic model for my theater no longer makes sense.”

Levin, who also produces documentaries, said he has a new film coming out this summer, but has no long-term plans past that. “I have loved doing this,” he said. “And I will take some small comfort in the fact that the rationale we had in opening the West End, which was that so many theaters in D.C. had gone out of business that we felt there was room in the marketplace, that that trend has reversed and we have wonderful new theaters. As a film fan and somebody who believes in the importance of having that experience in a darkened room with other people on a screen that’s larger than your cell phone, I’m excited for the future of exhibition in D.C.”

Although regular programming at the West End will cease on March 26, Levin said he hopes to “do something fun” at the theater the following weekend, before it closes for good on March 31.